On book prizes and literary patronage

This year’s National Book Prize was overshadowed by Alex Vella Gera’s protest against the government and the political establishment: the Labour and PN duopoly backed by big business and mired in corruption.

Under current political conditions, I wouldn’t expect anything different from Alex Vella Gera. By now, having become a literary voice capable of striking fear and anger into the hearts of those in power and those who wield it in other ways, Alex Vella Gera is held in high esteem by many. This for me also shows that our writers, especially those who write great literature, are even more respected than before and their word carries weight.

Having said that, I also feel that, as a government official, I need to give credit where credit is due. I have great respect for the Prime Minister because, although the National Book Prize has become increasingly marked with protests against the government, and although several books which have won the National Book Prize include narrations of the turbulent 1980s which read like pieces of criticism against the government of that time, financial support to the National Book Council by the current government has come and still comes with no strings attached.

In this respect, and due to the controversy that has erupted, I feel bound to say that I’m very happy to know that even though writers might be ferocious critics of the government, the government will still unconditionally support the National Book Council’s initiatives, the same initiatives whose immediate beneficiaries include dissenting writers. I am happy to be able to say this because this was not the case under the previous government administration, and, therefore, not something I am inclined to take for granted. I am also aware that my comments are also being made during a time when in many parts of the world we are witnessing the rapid growth of political movements which do not respect the basic values of democracy.

I’m also glad that Labour party media are doing the right thing in withholding all criticism of the same writers who are criticising the Prime Minister and the government. I will also try and make sure that this does not take place.

This was also not the case under the previous government administration. To give but one example, under Lawrence Gonzi’s administration I was accused by the Nationalist Party’s television station NET TV of promoting paedophilia by publishing Alex Vella Gera’s short story “Li Tkisser Sewwi”.

The Nationalist Party has until now never apologised for this gross and vile attack, and the fact that they now think and say openly to the public that their arrogance back then was simply a convoluted public perception shows that these people have not learned from their past mistakes.

I do not share Alex Vella Gera’s political stance, yet I’m glad that the National Book Prize has become so prestigious as to serve as an effective national platform for dissent. Bring it on, let the fire rage, burn the house down.

For my part, I will still stand by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for keeping his word and introducing legal reforms so as to reduce censorship in literature and widen the spectrum of what can be published legally and, furthermore, for allowing the National Book Prize to develop the way it has, free to acquire all its political connotations.

The government is also honouring its obligations to widen the possibilities of what can be published even further with a new press act which should be passed by parliament in the coming weeks and months.

If we did not hold the National Book Prize under the Prime Minister’s patronage, the funding and support to the National Book Council would not stop – it would keep increasing nonetheless.

And, in relation to the current Labour administration, the rationale for having the National Book Prize under the patronage of the Prime Minister is based on two considerations.

First of all, we get more visibility and national reach, not to mention the fact that an official recognition by the Prime Minister is in itself an institutional high honour, and secondly, because this government and the Prime Minister himself genuinely want to support the publishing and writing community even at the expense of the popularity of the government itself.

This relationship between the government and the writing and publishing community as mediated by the National Book Council provides an excellent balance. Of course, I cannot guarantee that things would remain the same under a Nationalist administration.




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